A week after graduating with a bachelor’s in accounting, I showed up to my new job at a Big Five accounting firm with the best JC Penney suit my signing bonus could buy. It was the middle of the dot-com boom, and although the term business casual was starting to surface, no one could give a straight answer on its definition. I may have been overdressed, but I felt it was appropriate until I could conduct further reconnaissance of my co-worker’s choices in colors, fabrics and footwear. Luckily, we would come to receive an official memo on wardrobe dos and don’ts.
A senior associate guided me through the first day to gather my essentials for success: laptop, Diners Club card and freshly sharpened colored pencils. Surely, I’d need red pencils to correct others’ mistakes. My cubicle was bare and, to my chagrin, there wasn’t enough surface area for an espresso machine. The location wasn’t ideal either. A full two cubes away from the nearest window, it wasn’t the most conducive environment for soothing workplace botany.
Despite these barriers, I smiled and weaved around the eighth floor of our building like it was my own personal catwalk. I introduced myself to managers and partners, letting the higher ups know I was ready to take on the most important and most desirable of projects.
I patiently waited at my cubicle for the work to trickle in. Maybe I shouldn’t have approached so many managers for work. How am I going to let one down easy if I don’t have time for his or her project? I need to time my walk to the gym for 5:15 Ab Blast, so I absolutely can’t accept any work after 4:30. I wonder if there is any cake left on the seventh floor. Do I get a cake for my birthday? Maybe I should find out who’s in charge of cake, and make friends with him or her. As I started to calculate the caloric cost-benefit analysis of taking the stairs to reach stale birthday cake, a senior associate approached my cubicle with stacks of printed paper.
“I heard you’re looking for work. I need these tax returns photocopied.”
I scooped my pride off the floor and headed to the Xerox machines.
Unbeknownst to me, this was often the first task given to new associates, and later in life I’d come to realize it was an important one. This is an associate’s chance to show the work ethic behind the ill-fitting suit. Managers can find out who complains, who is detail-oriented and who they can begin to think about trusting with more responsibility. Also, it allows new associates to replace “beer pong champion” with “photocopy 100-page tax returns without messing up” on their resumes.
A word of advice to today’s young professionals looking to advance in your organizations: Take your sense of entitlement out of your pocket, place it in a box and bury it. You probably grew up with teachers who didn’t use red pens because they seemed too harsh or played on a soccer team where losers got a trophy. Unfortunately, these feel-good antics don’t prepare you for the business world. And if you aren’t prepared to offer your organization value and performance, consider a career as a stay-at-home child.
But if you are ready to move up the ranks of your organization, it’ll take more than showing up and doing a good job. You have to keep your boss happy, too. This doesn’t mean keeping her desk stocked with mini bottles of Grey Goose. It means consistently thinking about the clients’ needs and the goals of your organization. So keep the following tips in mind to keep the right people happy (without looking like a brown-noser).
Dress for success(ion)
Before you open your mouth to announce the next great American business plan, your audience has already begun to judge you. Unless you’re Mark Cuban. Then they’re wondering why your stylist hasn’t been fired. Your physical appearance affects the way people respond to you in the workplace.
“We’ve become such a casual society,” says Debi Hammond, owner of Merlot Marketing Inc. in Sacramento. “Don’t dress for the job you have; dress for the job you want. And do the work of the job you want. Take on the projects that matter.”
A friend of mine in Sacramento is an information technology manager with the federal government. She has been mentoring young professionals for about 15 years. The first rule, she says, is to dress for success.
Take your sense of entitlement out of your pocket, place it in a box and bury it.
“I always tell young people to dress nice every day because that is how people will remember you,” she says. “I was always dressed nicer than others, and I was always the one who was selected to attend meetings and represent our unit. Dress like a professional, and you will be treated as a professional.”
And pay attention to the occasion as well. If you’re meeting a client for the first time, find out about the corporate culture. Do not dress up in a three-piece suit in a casual environment, says Roxi Hewertson, president and CEO of the Highland Consulting Group in Trumansburg, N.Y.
“Pay attention to where you are, and fit into the culture or the culture will spit you out,” Hewertson says. “If you can, walk around before you go in for an interview. Get some sense of the organization you’re in, and get a sniff of the culture. It takes no time if you’re paying attention, and smart people pay attention.”
Smart people also use common sense. Just because your client is a garden hose distributor in Loomis doesn’t mean you can wear Crocs to a meeting. In fact, never wear Crocs to a meeting. Never wear Crocs, period.
Be personable but professional
Adults spend an average of 8.6 hours per workday on their jobs and related activities, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Compare this to just 2.6 hours of leisure activity and 1.2 hours of caring for others. This means you likely spend more time with your coworkers than your family, so don’t be an Omarosa.
Co-workers either view you as trusting or not trusting, says Hewertson, who’s also an adjunct faculty member at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
“People don’t want to work around a negative person or a person with a negative attitude. Most people involuntarily lose their jobs because of their interpersonal skills. They don’t play well with others,” Hewertson says.
My friend the IT manager says one way to lose trust with co-workers is by becoming a known gossip.
She adds: “Don’t be a complainer. If you see a problem, discuss the problem and the solution with your supervisor. Nobody wants to hear about problems if you don’t have a solution.”
Just as bosses can detect a bad attitude, they can detect an overly friendly one as well. Bosses are human, and they have a bullshit radar just like everyone else. As one Bay Area-based accounting partner has put it: “There is a guy at work who tries too hard to impress me and other partners. His way of going about it is by bringing up sporting events (at inopportune times).”
In summary, if your boss is going over work-related material at your desk, then turns to walk away, don’t bring up last night’s Hot Dog Eating Contest on ESPN.
You probably shouldn’t march into your boss’s office and ask for more responsibility without articulation of these additional duties. If I had a staffer who asked for more responsibility without definition, I’d probably go tell him or her that our low-flush toilets need additional cleaning. And please, use green products to maintain the integrity of our earth-friendly plumbing and our company’s commitment to the environment.
You can’t just ask for more. You have to show that you’ve identified additional opportunity for the company, you’ve done your homework and you’re the right person to take on these additional duties. One Capital Region leadership coach suggests making two quick wins within the first 90 days of hire. A quick win could be identifying and exposing new resources, exceeding the boss’s expectations or developing an initiative that produces results. The low-lying fruit for quick wins is simply volunteering.
“A lot of young people only do what they’re asked because they don’t have the confidence to really contribute,” Hammond says. “Don’t wait to be asked.”
“They want to please me — the person who can give them a raise or a bonus,” Hammond says. “What I want you to do is please the client. Wow me with something I hadn’t thought of. Don’t think about a project based on what your superior wants. Think of a project based on what’s best for the client and the company.”
Starting with the job interview, you have to communicate what you can contribute to the organization. You have to sell yourself and your ideas. Now, hold that thought — for the duration of your career.
Before you offer suggestions or look for opportunities, it’s important to understand the goals of the organization. Is there a mission statement? What are this year’s objectives? Is there a five-year plan? Gathering this information is just as important in Operation Sell Yourself as telling a boss how awesome you are.
A Sacramento-based leadership coach suggests asking specific questions and repeating the response back to the person who is giving direction, reiterating that you are clear on the priorities, tasks and goals. Once you have a clearer understanding of goals, then start to formulate solid ideas.
“When offering a new idea, be clear, be concise, have the objective in mind and be passionate,” Hammond says. Spare your boss all the details about the research you did to come to your conclusion. No boss ever said, ‘Oh, thank you for that long-winded explanation. Please, tell me more.’ Give the idea, tell how it benefits the bottom line and explain yourself clearly and briefly.
Present intangible assets the same way you would present data, Hammond says.
“Have a clearly defined goal and show how you met it, then bring it all back to something that is measurable,” Hammond says. “If you’re creating more personal relationships, explain how that will eventually benefit the company from a financial standpoint.”
Whatever you are communicating — whether it be to a boss, team member or the lady in charge of ordering office birthday cakes — keep it appropriate. Remember, work emails can be monitored by employers or saved in a rainy day vengeance folder of a disgruntled co-worker.
“Never say or write something you wouldn’t want printed on the cover of the New York Times or splashed across Facebook or Twitter,” Hewertson says.
— Additional reporting by Christine Calvin.
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